DADE CITY — They had the best conversation they've ever had last week. First, they caught up on life — who is well, who is sick, who is having a baby — the normal things you say when you haven't talked with someone for awhile. And then it all shifted. When they could have said goodbye, they didn't. And, for two hours, the brother and sister shared in a way they never had before. They talked of who they are and who they wanted to be, how they felt, their hopes and dreams.
"I'm so proud of you," Erica Murburg said to her brother, whose proper name was Norman Michael Murburg III, but whom everyone called Ehren.
"The Army has made you the man you always wanted to become, but didn't know how."
And when they got off the phone, they said they loved each other and Erica felt so good. The brother she felt was lost years ago had come back.
But Tuesday, she lost him again, this time forever. The Green Beret candidate died in a training exercise near Fort Bragg, N.C. The army is still trying to figure out what happened.
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Erica is two years older than Ehren and, as kids, they were close. He always wore superhero clothes and pajamas — Superman, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe. He was a big, blond, bruiser of a boy from the start, and Erica, being the older sister, learned quickly not to make him play dolls with her.
Their parents divorced when Erica was 10 and Ehren was 8. They lived with their dad, Michael Murburg, a Pasco lawyer. Ehren changed after the divorce, Erica said. He was hurt and he concealed that in anger — sullen and silent, his sweetness and humor gone. He still excelled in school and wasn't a bad kid. But he withdrew. Ehren wanted to join the military, but, in their family, college was the rule.
So after graduating from Pasco High School in 2005, he enrolled at the University of Florida and majored in film and psychology with a minor in anthropology. He joined a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. But he was not happy.
Ehren, who was 6 feet 4 with green eyes, made it through his freshman year and then, this past fall, began his second. In September, he called his family with news. He had enlisted in the Army. Erica was upset, but also happy for him.
"There are a lot of problems in the world," he told her. "And I want to help. I want to be part of the solution."
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Ehren shipped out for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and, after his graduation in February, went to Fort Bragg. When Ehren did something, he wanted to be the best. So he wanted to be a Green Beret. His training exam was coming up, and Ehren told Erica he was nervous. The test would be grueling — left in a forest with a map and compass, and the task of finding targets.
"You'll be fine," she told her brother, the one who taught himself to ride a bike and then taught her. "Just give it your best."
The Army said Ehren was discovered missing after the 10-hour exercise ended midday Monday. Nearly 500 soldiers looked for him that day and night. His body was found at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Officials said his flares weren't used and that they received no signal from the emergency tracking device he was issued. His water canteens were full.
Erica doesn't think there was wrongdoing by the Army and thinks it was a tragic incident. Thursday night, she thought of how her brother changed in these past months. In taking a leap and doing what was in his gut, he found peace. He was stronger, yet also more kind.
Ehren wanted to be part of the family again. He called often and cared much. The barricade of anger he held for so long melted and there he was, a man in superhero clothes, the little brother of 20 years who changed his sister's life in a few months, leaving a voice inside her saying do it, do what's in your heart, don't be afraid, live the life you want.
Times staff writer Lisa Buie and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.